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24 Jan 2007 : Column 1478

I want to discuss the situation in Israel and Palestine, and my belief that the engagement in Iraq has taken attention away from the need to solve a problem that has become seriously worse, but has not received the international attention that it deserves if there is to be progress towards peace. Following the events of last summer, a weakened Israel has contributed to a sharp deterioration in the opportunity and climate for peace. Within the state of Israel, public opinion polls show a strong desire for a peace settlement among the population—it almost seems that they would do anything to secure such a settlement—along with a very low expectation that any such settlement can be secured in the present climate. That is cause for concern.

Next Wednesday the International Development Committee, which I chair, will publish a report. I will not pre-empt it now, but I hope that the House will pay attention to it, because I do not think we should regard the plight of the Palestinian people and their increasing dependence on aid with any degree of equanimity. Many of the measures that we are taking in response to the situation may even be making the achievement of a long-term solution harder rather than easier.

As was mentioned by the Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and one or two others, the increasing volume of international aid, and the welcome release by the Israeli Government of $100 million to the office of the Palestinian President, give the impression that we are supporting the Palestinian people. However, while aid is at a record level, it does not replace the revenue lost by the actions of the international community. I accept that the reasons for those actions were decided collectively, but they have left the Palestinian Authority deprived of 75 per cent. of its budget, and any public organisation that loses 75 per cent. of its budget will be incapable of delivering the services that people look to it to provide.

A total of $60 million a month came from customs revenues collected by the state of Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and $30 million a month came from the international community in the form of direct budget support. All the Palestinian Authority can get its hands on now is the $30 million of internal revenues that can be collected by the Authority itself. The international community has responded with increased contributions from our own aid budget, from the European Union, the United Nations and other sources, but that is not solving the problem.

The public services in the Palestinian state are on the verge of collapse. Many of the 160,000 public sector workers have been on strike because they have not been paid, and services are not being provided. The hospitals do not have drugs, and the clinics do not have the equipment that they need in order to care for people. One stark statistic—I think it relates to Hebron—is that before the funds were withdrawn, 600 women were in the local hospital having been delivered of babies over a period. Now there are only 100. The question that must arise is “Where have the babies been born?” They undoubtedly have been born, but they have not been cared for in the health system.

Another issue lies at the door of the Israeli Government and the Israeli authorities: not just the fence, the barrier and the security of the state of Israel, which is entirely understandable—indeed, it is the
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responsibility of any Government to try to protect their citizens and to provide security—but the way in which they have disrupted life inside the occupied territories and the west bank and made it impossible for people to carry on day-to-day life. There are well over 500 roadblocks inside the west bank, which people have to negotiate. At the same time, Israeli settlements are expanding. Those settlements have exclusive dedicated bypass roads, which give them access and speedy exit to the main state of Israel. Those roads are a further barrier that the Palestinians in most cases are not allowed to use or to cross.

The security barrier, or security fence may have some justification on security grounds, but the fundamental issue is that if a country wants to build a security fence it builds it, as we did in Northern Ireland, on its own land, not on the land that it occupies. More specifically, it should not build a 703 km barrier along a 315 km border. Clearly, the barrier is wiggling around and embracing all kinds of territory. That could by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as a security measure. It is regarded as an acquisition or indeed a land grab.

In that context, it behoves the international community to take some initiatives now to engage with the Government of Israel, who need support to secure a settlement. Clearly, the deteriorating situation does not give long-term security to the people of Israel. Someone mentioned creating a failed state. One cannot create a failed state. What one can do is deny the Palestinian territory the capacity to become any kind of state. I suggest that the international community is doing exactly that: it is talking about a two-state solution, but presiding over a situation that makes the existence of two viable states, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, impossible to deliver.

On a wider issue, in arguing the case for the invasion of Iraq, one or two Conservative Members have used grounds that are outside the framework of the grounds we were given when we were told the invasion was justified. However, on the back of the experience we have had in Iraq, the chances of persuading this country to engage, on humanitarian grounds, in international action in places such as Darfur—there have been similar situations in the Balkans and elsewhere—are likely to be a lot less than they may have been had that escapade not happened. I believe that it was a tragic mistake. Many of us have wrestled with trying to deliver the right result and helping to get a solution, but it is a question not just of whether we have a timetable to withdraw our own troops, but of giving the Iraqi authorities ways to address their ability to take control of their own country. Surely they must have some time frame and ability to develop capacity. If they cannot do it after four years, how many years do they have to have before we can withdraw and leave a viable state?

The tragedy is that the diversion of attention to Iraq has further destabilised the middle east and made a settlement in Palestine-Israel less possible. However, that settlement is even more necessary. The situation is deteriorating day by day and is unsustainable. It behoves this Government to take initiatives—I
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commend the Prime Minister for wanting to do so— that will help to move forward a proper peace process, allow two states to develop and allow the people of Palestine an increase in prosperity, rather than increasing poverty, which is what they face now.

3.59 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): The last words of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) demonstrate the centrality of the Palestinian issue in the whole of the middle east. Anyone who denies that has only to remember the final words of Saddam Hussein before he went to his gruesome and disgusting death—he talked about Palestine. Even in those last moments, as he went to his death, he knew that his martyrdom would be centred around talking about Palestine.

In August 2002—five months before the Iraqi war broke out—the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) commissioned me to write an article in which I said that I would, with whatever reluctance, vote with the Government if there were a war against Iraq, but that I very much hoped that there would not be a war against Iraq, and I warned of many of the events that have taken place as a result of that invasion. However, I also said in that article:

The problem is that Iraq does not have a regime that has rejoined the world community. Its conduct, and the recent executions that have taken place, demonstrate that.

Leaders of the west hailed the democracy involved in the election of the Iraqi Government, but that election has resulted in a vengeful sectarian gang that is hounding its religious opponents and not seeking to unite the country. It is also odd that we welcome the result of democracy in Iraq but refuse to recognise democracy in Palestine. However repugnant the Hamas movement is—and I find Hamas deeply repugnant—its victory was at least as valid as that of the current Iraqi Government, and, I might say, it was a good deal more valid than the way in which President Bush came to office in 2000.

As the right hon. Member for Gordon pointed out, the situation in the Palestinian territories is unacceptable. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has done everything that any human being can do to obtain a settlement. It is true that he is obstructed by conflict among the Palestinians, but he is obstructed above all by recalcitrance among the Israelis, who are literally getting away with murder: the killing of hundreds and hundreds of Palestinians, thousands since the second intifada broke out; the deaths of Israelis that have followed as a result of the Israeli action; the construction of a wall that has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice deep into Palestinian territory, not so much to protect Israelis as to protect illegal Jewish settlements deep into the Palestinian territories; the deaths of Palestinians, of women and children; and the continuing construction, even in the past weeks, of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. I am baffled by those who pay tribute to the Israeli release of tax revenues. When a thief returns a
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small fraction of what he has stolen, I do not regard that as an admirable act; I regard it as inadequate and unacceptable.

When the Israelis were launching their war against Lebanon last summer, any idiot warned of the consequences—and, indeed, I did so. Hezbollah is mainly intact. Its members are the heroes of the middle east. The three Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping was the pretext for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon—as it is for the continuing Israeli attacks on Gaza—remain in captivity. What has been the result? The ineffable chief of staff of the Israeli army has resigned.

The Prime Minister of Israel, who was a lousy mayor of Jerusalem before he became Prime Minister, has an approval rating of 14 per cent. Amir Peretz, Israel’s Minister of Defence, has destroyed the once great Labour party that founded Israel, and which was responsible for its democracy and pioneering and all the other things that I was proud to support as a Labour friend of Israel. Too late, Israel says that it is going to get rid of him, later this year.

I find it deeply demeaning that the Israeli public, with their 14 per cent. approval rating of Ehud Olmert, have turned against the war not because they believe that it was wrong, but because it failed. However illegal and lethal it was, they would have continued to support it. There is a long history among my Jewish people of doing, in effect, what the Israelites did when Moses went up Mount Sinai. They were impatient for his return, and they started to worship the golden calf. The sad fact is that although Israelis can be great and constructive and idealistic, they can also be their own worst enemies. Frankly, who needs Hezbollah when they have got Olmert and Peretz to damage that once great country?

The sad fact is that the Israelis are going to be allowed to career on in this way. President Bush and the neo cons will not exercise any pressure whatsoever on Israel, but nor will the Democrats, who—be it Hillary Clinton or anybody else—depend on Jewish votes in key states.

I say what I said at the outset. There is of course a mosaic of issues in the middle east, some of which are related and others not, but in Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria—to which I paid a private visit only a few weeks ago—Palestine is either the issue or the pretext for all the aggression taking place in the middle east. Although I deplore the loathsome regime in Iran, I find it somewhat baffling that we should condemn any possibility of its gaining nuclear weapons—I am against its doing so—while accepting the fact that Israel, which does not subscribe to the non-proliferation treaty, has had them for many years. Somehow, that is all right.

I have voted with my Labour Whip for all the 37 years that I have sat in this House of Commons, and I tell my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that any military action against Iran or any motion in this House endorsing it would provoke my first vote against the Labour Whip since I was elected in June 1970.

4.8 pm

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I begin by paying tribute to all the British soldiers and other service personnel who are contributing to the
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effort in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It was my sad duty last summer to visit the home and widow of Captain David Patton, a constituent of mine who was killed in Afghanistan. Our prayers and thoughts are with all those personnel currently serving there, and with the families of those who have made the supreme sacrifice.

I also wish to echo the comments by several contributors to the debate about the necessary equipment, clothing and supplies that are required by our personnel throughout the middle east. It is essential that all that is supplied to them in the carrying out of their duties.

The premise for the United Kingdom’s entry into Iraq was wrong. Saddam Hussein was an evil, cruel, vicious mass murderer. He met his demise, but unfortunately the manner in which he did so left a man who had no dignity in life with greater dignity in death than those who carried out his execution. The problem that we have at the moment in Iraq is that any US decision, either to have the surge that we are currently witnessing or any phased withdrawal that may be subsequently contemplated, would have serious consequences for the United Kingdom. No one whom I have heard, watched or listened to has suggested that there is any possibility of our personnel remaining if the US decided, for whatever reason, that the time had come for a phased withdrawal by their personnel.

It is true to say that the horrendous nature of what passes for a conflict in parts of Iraq is in some contrast to other parts of the country where there is relative stability, not least in Basra, where the good work and efforts of our personnel have contributed to that. I agree with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) that the surge of 22,000 US troops will be insignificant. Either the US should have contemplated a much more significant increase in service personnel to try to combat the upsurge in the activities of the insurgents, or it should contemplate trying to increase the Iraqi personnel’s capability to deal with the issues over the next 12, 18 or 24 months, followed by a phased withdrawal. However, we have neither a massive increase that might be able to do something to restore stability and normality, nor a phased withdrawal, which everyone suggests will have to happen sooner or later.

The problem is that, in the next two or three months when the surge is permitted to occur, it will hamper the very good reconstruction effort that is being made by all the nations who are contributing to restoration work of some form or another in Iraq. In all probability, within three or four months, the situation will either be significantly worse than it is now, or it will not be much better. The question then will be what we should do after that.

I am afraid that all the interventions to date have not delivered a materially better Iraq. Had we allowed the situation to continue with Saddam Hussein in power, things might well have been worse. I concur with the comments by others who have pointed out that hundreds of thousands of people perished during the rule of Saddam Hussein. The fact that we do not know at present whether 30,000 or 100,000 civilians have died in the past 12 months only indicates the extremity of the situation that pertains at present.

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It is unfortunate that neither the UN nor any other body has put forward any proposition that would lead to a significant improvement in Iraq by peaceful and diplomatic means. There are cruel dictators in other parts of the world. Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe is one example, but the UN has not proposed any effective and agreed way of bringing that regime to an end.

In conclusion, I fear that we will have to discuss Iraq again, and in the not-too-distant future. We all agree that we must enable the Iraqi security forces to deal with the insurgents, but I fear that we will have to grapple long and hard with the long-term consequences of what is going to happen in 2007 as a result of the intervention by the US and the UK in that benighted country.

4.16 pm

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): It is nearly four years since the great debate of 18 March 2003. Many hon. Members of all parties have entered the House since that date, and they may not be aware of all the arguments put forward then, but we must not forget that that debate had many precursors. The question of Iraq was discussed ad nauseam—certainly during the 1990s, and some would argue as far back as the 1980s. The problem of Iraq has a long genesis.

Some of the earlier speeches astonished me, because it seems that history is still being rewritten. For example, the Foreign Secretary made little or no reference to the real origins of the mess in which we find ourselves. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made some allusions to them, but did not go into detail. We cannot understand where we are going in respect of Iraq and the middle east in general if we do not understand where we are coming from. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) referred to the changed tone in Washington. I was quite taken by that, but I trust that he has not looked at the websites run by organisations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Centre for Security Policy or the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. The approach of such hotbeds of neo-con ideology has not shifted one iota. That ideology remains the powerhouse driving American thinking in respect of both foreign and security policy, and we ignore it at our peril.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South should not ignore the influence of neo-con ideology. We are all glad to see the hints and changes that we hope will result in a more benign American approach to the world, but it is a little simplistic to expect that a few quotations will be sufficient to change the existing solid commitment and direction of that country’s foreign policy.

We must not forget how the problem started. Leading Members of this House did not mention that—an astonishing sin of omission. Indeed, one Opposition Back Bencher made an intervention earlier in which he advocated regime change. He clearly did not understand that one of the problems that we faced before the invasion of Iraq was that regime change is illegal and specifically ruled out by the UN charter.
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Any post facto attempt to justify what was done on the basis of regime change puts us on very dodgy ground.

We should recall that the premise on which we went to war was that there was a clear and imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction. There were no weapons of mass destruction; there was no clear and imminent threat. We should remember, too, what the threat consisted of—capability plus intent—but there was no capability and no obvious intent on the part of Saddam. We can argue as much as we like about what a terrible man he was; of course he was, but he was no more terrible than many other authoritarian rulers on the planet.

We were taken into war on a false prospectus. There were no weapons of mass destruction and no threat from them or anything else. At the time, much was made of UN Security Council resolution 1441, which we debated for a long time in this place. However, subsequent events—leaks, memos, memoirs—all reinforced the view held by many of us at the time that the resolution was just a pretext and that the decision had already been taken and the die was cast. It all goes back to 1998 and the letter to Bill Clinton from the Project for the New American Century. Studying the “Who’s Who” of the neo-con world who signed that letter helps us to understand why we ended up in the position we are in.

That was America, however. The real problem was the decision taken by our Government, in our country, on our behalf. With that hindsight, it is truly amazing that the Prime Minister is still Prime Minister and that the then Foreign and Defence Secretaries—with the Prime Minister, the triumvirate who seemed to run the whole thing—are still in the Government. Nobody has been held to account, and I fear that nobody will be until the independent inquiry that is required looks into the whole process by which we were taken into what remains, by any objective analysis, an illegal and immoral war.

What have we ended up with? Iraq is in complete chaos. The country is fragmented. I do not know how we define civil war if we do not define the situation in Iraq as such. There have been many deaths—estimates vary but the number is 650,000, according to The Lancet. After a while, we become numb. I am reminded of Stalin’s observation that the death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a mere statistic. I cannot cope with a figure of 650,000, but I am aware of the bodies scattered around marketplaces that we see nightly on our televisions. One of the other great damaging aspects of the situation has been the effect on our diplomatic and moral standing in the world, because other people view those scenes, not least in the Islamic world and the Arab world at large.

As has already been adequately stated, there has been tremendous damage to our security. Like everybody else, I deplore violence wherever it takes place, but nobody can deny that the security situation facing Britain and British nationals has been immeasurably worsened by the fact that we took part in that illegal and immoral war.

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